Industries Must Interact More Closely With Academia

Dr. Amit Agrawal, Institute Chair Professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering, IIT Bombay, talks about bio-microdevices and patents in exclusive email responses to Gopal Anand from Cooling India and mentions, pandemic affected almost entire global economy and not just the HVAC industry.

To share with our readers, would you acquaint us about your journey till currently Institute Chair Professor, Mechanical engineering department in IIT Bombay?

After finishing B.Tech. degree in Mechanical Engineering from IIT Kanpur, I worked in Tata Motors, Pune for two years. I enjoyed my time in the factory and learnt a lot working with my own hands. However, since I always wanted to get into ‘academics’, I decided to go for higher education. I worked in the area of Fluid Mechanics while doing my Ph.D. at the University of Delaware, USA, and continued studying turbulent flows as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Newcastle, Australia. Both my Ph.D. and postdoc experiences were extremely enriching and exposed me to a large number of tools and techniques, which allowed me to tackle a wide variety of complex problems later, as an independent researcher.

I had always dreamt of working as a faculty in an IIT, mostly because, I had seen my father teaching as University professor. Therefore, I was extremely happy to return to India and take up a faculty position at IIT Bombay. The initial period of my career was extremely demanding, as a lot of effort was required to setup a research laboratory and start a research group. Thankfully, I got some very good students to work with. Some of these former Ph.D. students have gone on doing far better than what I could do, which makes me extremely proud and satisfied.

You have been engaged in the areas of fluid mechanics and heat transfer, with specialization in micro scale flows and micro devices. Could you brief us about Blood Plasma Separation micro device performing the function of centrifuge at micro scale?

There is a worldwide trend to develop bio-microdevices (also called point-of-care devices), beyond the commercially available pregancy kit and glucose meter. Since blood test is the most common test advised by a doctor, it is imperative that PoC devices for blood-based tests should be developed. After blood is collected from a patient, it is first centrifuged; however, performing this step of separation of the various blood components turns out to be particularly challenging at the microscale, and earlier scientists and companies have struggled to do it effectively. We approached this problem systematically, understood what all parameters affect the separation process, before trying out various designs, and finally optimizing them. We have been able to demonstrate an extremely efficient and simple microdevice, probably with the best specifications at the world stage.

With respect to damage caused to the overall manufacturing and design industries during pandemic times, what is your perception about HVAC industry in India and globally?

Unfortunately, a lot of industries have been badly hit by the pandemic. My heart goes out to casual workers and contract workers in the industries, who had to bear the maximum brunt of the pandemic, with some of them losing their job. Of course, the pandemic has adversely affected almost the entire global economy and not just the HVAC industry in India.

How much optimistic are you about HVAC industry recovery momentum and what suggestions will you opine towards for the same.

While undoubtedly the pandemic has left all of us bruised, it has also forced us to think afresh and do things differently. Perhaps, a fresh beginning at the global scale would not have been possible without the pandemic. I am sure that the demand will pick up, as it was before the pandemic. And, if we are able to learn enough new things, then the disaster will get converted into an opportunity. I would urge the industry leaders to integrate more local technologies and expertise into their products and solutions; as I believe that lot more of these exist then we would normally acknowledge. The industries should interact more closely with Academia, as the Indian academic institutes are really world-class and are capable of solving most of the ‘long-term’ industrial problems, and can help develop new products which can give them the competitive edge that they need. Working with industrial problems is also enriching for the Academia and helps build a strong ecosystem, which eventually benefits the entire society.

You, are leading a group of scientist involved in development of the next generation micro devices, could you detail about the prospects and its vast contributions?

The next generation microdevices will have functionalities that the current systems are not able to deliver. This includes innovations with respect to cell sorting, micro-pumping, thermal cycling, and new ways to manufacture and integrate such microdevices. Understandably, a large number of startups dealing with novel microdevices are spawning in the country and abroad, and these developments are especially expected to positively impact the health sector.

Could you briefly list out patents and/or licensed micro devices for commercial use?

We have patents (some awarded and several filed) for blood plasma separation, thumb-operated micropump, three-dimensional hydrodynamic focusing (for making cells move in a single file), separation of platelet rich/poor plasma from blood, and microdevice for capturing single cells/bacteria. We also have patents for synthetic jet-based cooling of components, vortex flowmeter, header design for improving uniformity of flow distribution, and three-dimensional particle image velocimetry system. Some of these technologies have been licensed, while we are looking for partners to license the other technologies.

What challenges do you see in HVACR trends and technology in 2021?

I am not sure, I can say too much here. I do expect the demand to pick-up, esp. from April onwards; of course, this is purely speculative, based on my assessment on when the pandemic should abate.

What has been your achievement in the area of your specialisation?

Just like the quality of education imparted by an institute can be assessed by looking at how well its alumni are doing, I look at the past students (esp. Ph.D. students) from my group. I am happy to see that most of them are doing very well. The hardwork of the group members over the years have brought several laurels to the group including Fellowship of the prestigious National Academies and coveted awards such as the CSIR’s ‘Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize’ handed over by the Prime Minister of India.

What are your future plans and anything more you would like to share with our readers?

We are currently studying the dynamics of transmission of COVID-19. This line of research has been extremely rewarding in the current difficult times, as it has helped provide scientific evidence for the benefit of using a mask, regular cleaning of surfaces, maintaining social distancing, etc. We do plan to continue studying disease transmission and development of novel bio-microdevices, as such investigations have great potential for societal benefit.

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